March 5, 2006

Global solution for restitution needed

Posted at 9:50 pm in Similar cases

Following the agreement by the Metropolitan Museum to return the Euphronios Krater & the court case against former Getty curator Marion True, this article tables the idea that what is really required is a more complete global solution to the problems of looted artefacts in museums – a framework within which decisions can be made, rather than individual curators flying round the world trying to negotiate individual compromises on each separate case.

Opinion Journal

Truth in Booty
Coming–and staying–clean.
Tuesday, February 28, 2006 12:01 a.m. EST

No Keatsian “bride of quietness,” the world’s most notorious Grecian urn created a commotion from the moment it was secretly unearthed in Italy. The return of the urn (more properly called the Euphronios “calyx krater”) is now scheduled for 2008, under an agreement signed last week by Italian cultural officials and Philippe de Montebello, director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which bought it in 1972.

Michael Brand, the new director of the J. Paul Getty Museum, is also negotiating with the Italians, who have brought criminal charges against Marion True, his museum’s former antiquities curator. A senior Getty official, requesting anonymity, said the museum hopes these negotiations will have a “positive impact” on Ms. True’s legal woes, in addition to resolving the ownership status of objects in the Getty’s collection.

And this just in: The Italian police are reportedly planning to fly next month to Boston, to stake their claim to objects at the Museum of Fine Arts.

But ad hoc compromises under compulsion are no way to resolve the complex issues of the antiquities wars. A more considered, global solution, crafted under diplomatic auspices, is urgently needed. Otherwise, we may soon witness a long line of chastened American museum directors making the grim pilgrimage to Rome (not to mention Cairo and capitals of other nations emboldened by Italy’s example). Indeed, Mr. de Montebello himself could eventually retrace his steps: The agreement does not preclude future demands.

Now that the Italian prosecutors have dug up the dirt on objects dusted off for America’s pristine vitrines, our curators are recataloging their “hot pots” as time bombs that could create legal havoc. No one wants to endure the humiliation of a curatorial perp walk in the footsteps of Ms. True, whose distraught face as she exited an Italian courthouse after her first trial date made an indelible impression in newspapers around the world. She has been charged with trafficking in looted objects.

Who can blame Mr. de Montebello and Mr. Brand for trying to cut a deal rather than allow more museum officials to cop a plea? The Italian Culture Ministry, in its agreement with the Met, waived its right “to pursue or support any legal action against the Museum or its staff and officers,” in relation to the returned objects. Future Italian claims are to be resolved “with the same spirit of loyal collaboration that inspired the present agreement.”

New evidence, Mr. de Montebello has said, convinced him of the likelihood that the Euphronios krater, purchased by the Met under its previous director, Thomas Hoving, “had been. . .illicitly removed” from Italy. But the museum’s officials, in fact, suspected from the moment they heard about the vessel that it “had been illegally dug up in Italy,” as Mr. Hoving candidly admitted in his 1993 dirt-dishing book, “Making the Mummies Dance.” His strong suspicions never weakened his resolve to buy it nor to keep it after the acquisition provoked storms of controversy. Nor was he alone among American museum officials and collectors in stifling scruples when seduced by beauty.

After the krater fracas, the Met astonishingly continued to do business with the same dicey dealer, Robert Hecht, who had brokered that controversial transaction. In the 1980s, it bought from him the so-called Morgantina treasure, a third-century B.C. Hellenistic silver collection allegedly smuggled out of Sicily. This now has a 2010 return-ticket to its country of origin, under the Met’s agreement with Italy. Mr. Hecht is standing trial there, along with Ms. True.

As for the Getty, it publicly announced in 1995 that it would “acquire only antiquities with a well-documented provenance.” The next year, it accessioned the largely unprovenanced Greek and Roman antiquities collection of Barbara and Lawrence Fleischman, which now also figures in Italy’s repatriation campaign.

In truth, all of the combatants in the antiquities wars have dirt on their hands: obviously the looters, but also Italy’s censorious authorities, who for years notoriously neglected the urgent task of policing their own archaeological sites and porous borders. Now they want back what they should have more vigilantly protected in the first place.

It’s time to involve the U.S. State Department and its Cultural Property Advisory Committee, which are responsible for implementing our cultural property agreements with other nations. They must take the heat off individual museum officials, whose passion to display a full array of cultural riches at home may be chilled by the fear of criminal prosecution abroad.

True, museum officials may be justifiably wary of depending on the State Department, which is thought to be soft on cultural-property demands. As noted by art-law attorney William Pearlstein (in “Who Owns the Past?,” a recently published compilation of essays on cultural-property issues), “U.S. enforcement agencies have no incentive to tolerate, much less promote, the importation of cultural property if the result would be to antagonize foreign governments that might, in consequence, withhold cooperation on matters. . .such as terrorism, drug smuggling, illegal immigration.”

But only timely government intervention can partly close the repatriation floodgates that Mr. de Montebello may have opened when he agreed to give back objects based upon what he called “circumstantial evidence.” Objects properly imported into the U.S. before a specified date, and not “stolen” under universally accepted meanings of that word, should be able to remain here under the legal principle of “repose” (the concept that owners should not be indefinitely subject to stale claims). Otherwise, there is little to prevent attempts to empty our museums of everything that ever arrived under murky circumstances. The effective date of the U.S. Cultural Property Implementation Act, Apr. 12, 1983, is a logical cutoff.

The cutoff date should apply only to works that would never have been considered stolen under U.S. laws, were it not for the blanket patrimony laws of antiquities-rich countries that claim as national property everything unearthed within their borders, including objects as yet undiscovered.

The diplomatically adroit Mr. de Montebello and his colleagues from other institutions should prevail upon the State Department to craft a reasonable roadmap for resolving future disputes. It would delineate clear criteria for repatriating objects, as well as less drastic, collegial solutions–long-term loans, shared ownership, perhaps even joint archaeological excavations, conservation and research. Such good-faith cooperation, which is part of the Met’s recently drafted agreement with Italy, is also encoded in the Jan. 13, 2006, extension of a memorandum of understanding between the U.S. and Italy regarding import restrictions on antiquities.

At the same time, the Met should rethink its stated willingness to continue buying antiquities of uncertain provenance–a tipoff, many archaeologists believe, that they are probably plunder. At a press briefing last Friday, Mr. de Montebello dismissed the notion that such museum purchases abet looting. He also disparaged archaeologists who propound this view, saying that they “have their own agendas and want their concessions [permitting them to excavate sites] renewed.”

The Met now exercises rigorous due diligence before acquiring antiquities, and will not touch anything that is not “known to have been out of the country of origin for 10 years,” according to Mr. de Montebello. But in addition to doing its own research, the Met should obtain an explicit go-ahead from likely countries of origin before squandering acquisition funds on objects with uncertain provenance that may later have to be repatriated.

Going forward, antiquities-rich countries need to tighten their own policing of archaeological sites, while loosening the inflexible national ownership laws that help to drive the illicit market. A roadblock attempting to stop all newly discovered objects from leaving their jurisdictions will green-light continued clandestine traffic across their borders. Museums and collectors need to be granted some legitimate way to acquire beauty that isn’t booty.

Ms. Rosenbaum is a contributing editor of Art in America magazine and writes for The Wall Street Journal on museum and visual-arts issues.

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